July 3, 2021

Homicide Victims Are Not ‘Speed Bumps’



Dear PERF Members,

There’s a 4-minute video I’d like you to watch. If you are like me, you’ll find it powerful and moving.

But first, a few words about the back story.

Oakland, California. Homicides are way up, with 65 killings so far this year, a 90% increase from last year. Carjackings are up 88%, shootings are up more than 70%. Robberies total more than 1,300, an 11% increase. Oakland police officers have recovered 580 firearms this year.  

In the midst of all this, the city council decided to shift funding out of the Police Department’s budget. A city official referred to the budget reduction as a mere “speed bump” for the police.

That didn’t sit well with Oakland’s police chief, LeRonne Armstrong, who took office in February. Chief Armstrong grew up in one of the most impoverished areas of the city. When LeRonne was 13 years old, his brother was shot and killed at his high school. “I knew then, at the age of 13, that whatever I decided to do would center around safety in the city of Oakland,” Chief Armstrong told a local newspaper. “I didn’t want any other family to experience what I had experienced.”

So LeRonne gets it. He knows the city of Oakland intimately, and the city is in trouble. A weekend of violence had the chief publicly saying that crime was out of control.

In this context, a last-minute decision by the city council to make an $18-million reduction in the mayor’s budget request for the police seemed counter-intuitive.  What does the city council want to do with the money? Give it to a program that funds violence interrupters and community ambassadors. These are important initiatives, but why take the money for them from the police department?  As the chief pointed out, this is a false choice.  The city must do both – hire more cops and also have a strong violence interruption program. The Police Department is authorized to have 788 officers, but only has 714 positions filled. Chief Armstrong has noted that the city has not added officers to the Police Department since 2013, even though the city’s population grew from 395,000 to 433,000 in that time.

But politics has taken over, and it feels like city officials believe it’s appropriate to impose some kind of collective punishment on the Police Department, to reduce the hiring of a new class of cops when cops are most needed.

With all of this in mind, please click on this brief video of Chief Armstrong’s press conference on Monday.

I think you will see what I saw. Passion. Humility. Caring. Leadership.

During the video, at around the 2:35 mark, you see the chief pause. He was overwhelmed by something.

I called Chief Armstrong up and asked him what happened at that moment. He told me that while he was speaking, pictures of recent homicide victims were being displayed in the background. And he happened to see an image of Lashawn Buffin, a close family friend, whom LeRonne called his “God-sister.”

Ms. Buffin was shot this past January in her own home. She was not the intended target; it just happened that a group of people were outside her home, shots rang out, and her home was riddled with bullets.

Lashawn was a major influence in LeRonne’s life, and so he was momentarily overwhelmed when her photo appeared on the screen behind him.

This video shows what leadership looks like in Oakland.

I asked the chief what the reaction has been since his press conference, and he told me he has been inundated with calls and messages. And from where? All over the country, he said, but especially in the most impoverished areas of East Oakland, where the homicides have been occurring. 

A passionate leader who grew up in East Oakland is sounding a clarion call for help.

Below, I’ve transcribed some of what Chief Armstrong said. It’s just as powerful in print as it is in the video:

We find ourselves in a crisis….. We see clearly that crime is out of control in the city of Oakland.

I want to address a comment that was made by one of our city leaders during these budget meetings. [The budget reduction] was referred to as ‘a bump in the road,’ a ‘speed bump.’

Well, for me, those ‘speed bumps’ are 65 lives so far this year. Whether it’s shootings, robberies, carjackings, sexual assaults, all of these crimes are not speed bumps. These are people.

Far too often in these meetings, we are talking about numbers; we are talking about money and cost. I don’t know what the cost of a life is. But I know that not having resources makes our city less safe. It concerns me that we would ever consider that to be a bump in the road.

When you look at the screen, these are true people. These are people who lost their lives in this city. The violence that impacts our community every day. When I go to scenes and I meet with mothers and family members, they’re not talking about numbers, they’re talking about their children.

Saturday night, I went out to a scene of a young man who had lost his life. And a lady yelled out the window, “Do something about it!”  Without the resources, it makes it challenging to make Oakland safe. And more families find themselves dealing with trauma, finding themselves dealing with putting the pieces together. When the yellow tape is gone, and when the streets are cleaned up, there is still hurt and pain and tragedy in our community.

I hope that we can put politics aside and put public safety first. Put people’s lives first.

I believe that Chief Armstrong may be the canary in the coal mine.  Nationally, I think we’re starting to see a greater sense of urgency and passion about the skyrocketing violence that’s occurring in many cities.  

Have a great July 4th weekend.   Weekend Clips are below.